Just Like Heaven
Already Sonic Youth's favorite group, Dinosaur Jr. covered a Cure song in order to meet death-rock girls. They're a laugh and a goof and the best independent band in America.
Hours late, Dinosaur Jr. mosey on into the Yale dining hall where they’ll be playing later that night. J Mascis — singer, songwriter, guitarist — has considerably longer hair than anyone else present. Murph, the drummer, has a beard. Through a hidden door behind the ornate balcony that looms over the stage is a long red-carpeted room, lined with dusty tomes, where we go to talk. “Evil doings go on here,” drawls Mascis as he drops into a red leather chair beneath gothic windows gouged out of pale stone. “I took a class on the human brain in here,” I tell them. “The first day, the teacher plopped a brain right on the table, oozing with formaldehyde. To pick it up, you had to wear gloves to keep brain-worms from burrowing into you and making you psychotic. It was a lot smaller than I’d expected, kinda like a softball. I wanted to throw it.”
I figured smooshed brains would get these guys — not known for being garrulous — going. Four years after J Mascis’ world first dripped down like gravy (in “Repulsion” from Dinosaur, their ’85 lo-fi goo-fest debut), these three Amherst, Massachusetts, boys still revel in what bassist Lou Barlow calls the “gloppy things and gross things that little kids like.” Song titles display an obsession with viscous fluids (“Tarpit,” “Sludgefeast,” “Pond Song”) and yuckiness (“The Leper,” “Several Lips,” “The Lung”). The cover of Bug, their third record, is made up of squished Gummi worms and smeared paint; the cover of their new single, “Just Like Heaven” (a Cure cover — better than their Frampton cover — and a college radio hit), has a brain on it. But the band’s name says it all. Dinosaurs: big, strange creatures that live in slime and fascinate pre-teens. Dinosaurs: dead beasts whose oily, mucky guts make our motors run. Dinosaurs: mind-blowing, long-haired guitarists that lurk in rock’s older strata (a band of such creatures from San Francisco called The Dinosaurs forced the band to add Jr. to their name). “The Post,” from Bug, is Neil Young’s “Down By The River” for the children of Sid and MTV.
In the early 80s, J and Lou played drums and guitar in a hardcore band called Deep Wound, and Murph (Pat Murphy) played drums for the similarly inclined All White Jury. They outgrew hardcore’s pummel (“We had sex,” J confessed to NME’s Jack Barron last year. “You lose the thrashing drive after sex”) channeling its energy into longhair power chords and sweet mud. Their first record was a demo made by two teens and a drummer. By the time of their second, 86’s You’re Living All Over Me, they were Sonic Youth’s favorite band. “We wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for Sonic Youth,” says J, acknowledging the way the Youth took them under their wing, taking them on tour in 1986 and pushing Blast First to release Bug in England. Thurston Moore says Bug is “much, much better than Daydream Nation.”
Sitting around the table in Satan’s collegiate lair, J Mascis seems friendly but taciturn, and speaks in a softer, more bemused version of the near-hick drawl he sings with. He seems about as taken aback by the obligations “rock fans” foist on him as he is estranged by the grown-up world in his songs. “I don’t like to be treated like an alien,” he says, munching on cinnamon Dentyne. “It’s just not human. A lot of the times it’s a nightmare. You can’t have any normal interaction.”
“People’ll just start laughing at everything you’re saying,” says Lou Barlow. “Or look closely at everything you’re doing, just because you make this record they really like. Not to say we don’t want to communicate with everybody and we’re just grumpy all the time. I don’t know, it’s just weird. It’s kind of scary.”
Far more terrifying than ‘zineheads and scenesters, however, is the band’s gig tomorrow night, headlining at Manhattan’s biggest rock club, the Ritz, on a Saturday night. “It’s probably the most frightening thing I can think of,” J says. “It’ll require an on-site psychologist before we go on. We’ve played at festivals, but this is different. It’s like they’re coming for us. We played there once but I liked it ’cause nobody was there. I’d be excited if there was like no one there. Or I hope it’s totally packed, so we get our percentages and make like $9,000,” he chuckles, head hung forward, barely moving.
“It’s fine when it’s someone else’s responsibility, but when it’s ours …” Lou says, smiling sheepishly as he pushes his glasses up his nose. Kids.
That night at Yale they take to the poorly-lit stage looking like a hardcore band out of The Lord of the Rings. Except for his goofy orange ski cap with a rainbow band and a big furry pompom, J is an example of the lanky, elfin strain of Deadheads: straight sub-nipple hair, droopy brown sweater, orange knit necklace. Murph bashes his drums like a bearded hobbit. Beneath his Wilderness Division sweatshirt decorated with Eskimos, he wears a Squirrel Bait T. Lou, in torn jeans, half turns towards his amp, confronting the audience only when he takes to the mike for his occasional screams. Even then he hides behind his shaggy dog mop.
They jam electric drool, grunge from the heart of the broken forest, feedback and sludgy riff doodles leaking out between the cracks in the set like glue. Unlike the Jesus and Mary Chain, who layer feedback and screech on top of catchy songs, Dinosaur Jr.’s tunes emerge from the noise itself. They lunge into “Sludgefeast,” a midtempo melting pot of minor chord metal, 70s leftovers, and misty mountain pop. J, gazing vacantly over the audience, splatters electricity everywhere, surrounding himself in noise before pleading, “I’m waiting/Please come back/Got the guts now/To meet yer eye.” Murky matters bubble up from beneath the surface of the song: solitude, yearning, love that falls short of friendship. The wood-folk melody and J’s plaintive warble thread through the massive hooks and monstrous guitar sludge like small flowers growing on hills of black sulfurous muck. And once you step in it, yer stuck.
J’s boot works the wah-wah, the leads bursting like geysers. Lou strums his bass like a rhythm guitarist, occasionally drowning out J’s guitar and voice. They’re not nearly as loud as I’d been led to expect. “We’re mellowing out I guess, getting older,” J explains later, half-grinning.
Thailand Restaurant in New York’s Chinatown, Saturday night. A rock band sliding into the Oz of childhood. “I collected butterflies and beer cans,” Lou says fondly. “I was into music from early on, listening to hit radio, learning chords on the guitar. I had an Eagles songbook and a 70s Hits songbook. My first record was ‘Hot Rod Lincoln’ by Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen.” Mopping up the rest of someone else’s Thai spicy beef, he hums the riff. “I remember going outdoors and turning over rocks, killing ants and catching butterflies, walking in the woods.”
“Do you do that anymore?”
“No, now I stay indoors all the time,” he says.
Murph leans forward over the table. “I had this train set in the basement and I used to spend hours with it. I went to shows, collecting, trading. I was really into destroying things, too. I was always really into fireworks and I used to blow up, like, frogs and shit.”
“I would never do that,” Lou says, grossed out. “That’s totally sadistic cruelty. Bizarre.”
J perks up, smiling. “I used to make bows and arrows and like shoot ‘em at the cats in the neighborhood.”
And does J — who once wrote “I love the caterpillars munchin’ on the leaves/Pitter-patter makes me forget my disease/Bugs have feelers just like me/I’m feelin’ oh so lonely” — miss this idyllic state of un-selfconscious cruelty to animals?
“Well, I, uh…yah. Yah. You know, as you get older, more people are pounding down on you. You just feel guilt more,” he murmurs.
Rock stars these guys ain’t. Lou claims he never plays bass unless he’s touring, mostly spending time with tape loops and “four-string guitar.” As Sebadoh, he and Eric Gassney have a record due on Homestead. Dinosaur Jr. rarely practices, functioning only under pressure. J says he only writes lyrics when he has to. Asked what’s behind his lyrical obsession with muck, he replies, “I don’t know. It’s probably because I wrote all those songs at the same time.”
“We’re totally lazy,” says Lou. He doesn’t like playing in bigger clubs because “you feel dwarfed, small and stupid.” They’re not much interested in the major labels. In the studio, they pretty much leave J to himself.
And why does J enjoy playing at high volume? “It’s basically because I don’t like to play. The guitar’s such a wimpy instrument, and it’s the only way to make it halfway bearable. I mean, I like listening to guitar, but to me it’s never loud enough because it’s so weird and undynamic an instrument.”
“You really don’t like to play guitar?”
“Why do you do it?”
Later at the Ritz, J responds to youthful cheers by playing a screechy tape loop of some guy repeating “thank you, thank you” after every song. Lou wanders around while J retunes, nibbling his fingers, yelling gibberish into the mike. When J sings, he spaces entirely, his hook nose the only sign that a human lurks behind the brown waterfall of hair. But they rock, giving the creatures what they want, J bounding around the stage like a willowy mountain man, Lou and Murph flopping like Muppets. The last song, “Don’t,” devolves entirely, a guy from the opening band, New York underground supergroup B.A.L.L., jamming on bass, Lou collapsing his lung into the mike, B.A.L.L. guitarist Kramer high-stepping between them, while assorted punks stage-dive and yank instruments with them into the sweaty teen pit. J falls to his knees in rockstar rapture, a guitar hero despite himself.